Saturday, April 01, 2006

Independence Day, the Plague, and a Beauty Contest (e-mail from Amy)

If you are reading this email it means that I got the Internet thing to work, but I still have to get a phone line put into my house, so it will still be a while before I write more than once a week or so. I keep putting off calling the telephone company, partially because I don't know how to tell them where I live. There are no house numbers or street names in Anker, in fact the whole idea of streets is sort of flexible, they are the sort of the flatter and barer spaces in the bush, but you can chose to drive wherever you feel like and the bakkies and donkey carts do. One of these days I'll work up the courage and call them and tell them, "I don't know where I live, but if you can find your way to Anker, just ask someone where the white girl lives, that's my house and I'd like to have a telephone."

In Windhoek

So here's what has happened to me since I last wrote. As many of you know, I went to Otjiwarongo and saw the doctor. He gave me some pills. I started getting a little better, but I still had a fever and some flu symptoms, so the Peace Corps decided to pull me out to Windhoek. Thinking about it now, and having read an information sheet they sent out, I think they are probably a little panicky since bird flu appeared in Africa, particularly in Niger, a Peace Corps country. Anyway, in typical fashion, my flu disappeared almost as soon as I got to Windhoek, but they kept me there for a few more days to run some tests (I am still malaria, parasite, and TB free, in case you were wondering) and to get a doctor to look at my tonsils (Peace Corps is nothing if not thorough.) The doctor said, unsurprisingly, that my tonsils were OK, but he prescribed some penicillin in case something happens again and I find it difficult to get out of Anker. While I was in Windhoek I met Jason and we saw Zathura, since it was half price movie night at the only movie theatre in Windhoek (there are two in the whole country), and had dinner out. It was a lot of fun. He is a great host which is good because sometimes I think it's harder for the people who live in hub cities and have volunteers visiting them all the time. They can't just spend a quiet weekend at home and they end up spending a lot more money, since they have things they can buy and country bumpkins like me who want to do things with them.

Back from Windhoek

March 21st was Namibia's 16th anniversary of independence, so we had a four day weekend. I spent it in Otjiwarongo and visiting (only slightly illicitly) with some friends in Okakarara (by the way, one of them told me that Dick Cheney shot a guy in the face and I didn't believe them. I actually accused them of lying, and not doing a very good job, because it seemed so absolutely ridiculous, until I got one of the Newsweek's that the Peace Corps sent us. Man, I can't leave you guys alone for a few months without everything going to pot, can I?). We went to a celebration in the location in Otjiwarongo where we were the only white people except for some Norwegian volunteers who showed up later on. We were escorted to the front to sit (possibly they thought we were some important group from the press, but it might just be white privilege rearing its ugly head again.) The celebration itself wasn't that great but it was fun to spend time with friends and see how other people celebrate independence. We unfortunately missed the dancing because we were going to have a braai and so we just got to hear someone read a really boring speech written by the President (imagine sitting through someone reading a printed copy of a really long, kind of pointless State of the Union speech and then imagine that it is being translated into three different languages, making it at least 3 times as long. Not even the Namibians were listening.) I did get some of the food, though. We bought some fat cakes (fried bread) and some corn on the cob that was boiled in the husk and tasted like something in between sweet corn and field corn. It wasn't bad. We wanted to get ice blocks (frozen baggies of Kool-Aid) because it was really hot, but they were all sold out. Anyway, after that I hiked back, but I didn't start out early enough and ended up getting stuck in Kamanjab on Tuesday. On Wednesday I sat outside the service station from 8AM until I finally got a hike at 4PM from the pastor at the Lutheran church in Anker. I think I confused some of the passing tourists who stopped in Kamanjab to fill their Land Rovers with diesel, since I was sitting in a corner next to a woman in the full Herero getup (think enormous Victorian dress in crazy African print, with a headscarf elaborately wound to look like cow horns) surrounded by bags of groceries. I definitely looked a little out of place. I even heard some British tourists asking the gas station attendant where I was heading and why I was hiking (Afrikaners don't hike.) She explained that I was a volunteer and I came into town every two or three weeks for supplies. If I didn't live so far out in the bush I think one of them might have given me a ride, which would have been a lot of fun. Actually I was as fascinated with the tourists as they were with me. I impressed all of the Damaras at the station by sneezing and joking that someone must be thinking of me (that's what the Damara say it means when you sneeze.) and by telling them in KhoeKhoe that it was going to rain.

Back to school

In all, I missed almost a week and a half of school and since I have an overactive conscience I feel very guilty about it. When I got back everyone was excited. They told me that they were worried about me and they prayed very hard for me. I cried a little because it felt so good to be home and I didn't realize how much I missed everyone. The end of the term test is coming up and I'm worried about how many classes my kids missed while I was gone. I wish I hadn't gone to Windhoek and I feel really guilty about it, but I try to comfort myself by reminding myself that that's hindsight talking since I would have felt bad if I ended up having Tuberculosis or Malaria and hadn't gone.


While I was away, but when I was feeling better, I tried to do some of the work I couldn't do in Anker. I bought some supplies to fix the library books. One of the other volunteers told me how he buys sweets in bulk and has his library prefects sell them for 20 cents and uses the profits to buy supplies for the library, which I thought was brilliant so I copied him (as one of my writing profs said.. good writers don't borrow, they steal. I think it applies to volunteers too.) I looked up info on how to get a grant from computer companies, so I hope to work with one of the other teachers on that project. So I actually did get some things done while I was gone.

Teaching stories

So, a few random funny stories from teaching: On Monday I was in the middle of teaching science when I noticed that none of my learners were looking at me. They were all staring out of the door. "What's out there that's so interesting?" I asked. "It's a /hun." one of my learners said. Sure enough, there was a white man with a Ministry of Education car. "Stop staring at that white person and start staring at this white person," I told them pointing at myself and they all thought that was pretty funny. On Tuesday I was showing one of the fifth graders a map of the world. We found Namibia and I showed her where America was and then she pointed to the area around the map. "Miss, this is where the heavens is?" she asked. So I had to try to explain that even though the map was flat. The world was actually round. One of my sixth graders asked me on Wednesday if you would ever walk so far that you would fall off the world. It makes a lot of sense. There is no globe in Anker and believe me, after making a fool of myself trying to explain why the sun came up in the East when it went down in the west, it is not intuitive to believe in a round Earth, plus they're still just 5th and 6th graders. I have given up on not looking a little silly. When they asked me about the sun coming up I had one of them stand still and pretend to be the sun. Then I turned around in a circle while slowly going around him. I think I might have only succeeded in really confusing him. I'm almost positive that they didn't understand my explanation of the moon phases. Oh, well. I think the learners are starting to understand that I don't like them fighting. These children hit and kick each other a lot and no one seems to think that's a big problem. I don't know if you can attribute it to the remnants of apartheid or corporal punishment or just to cultural difference. The thing is that kids don't always learn the lessons you want them to learn. You might hit a kid to teach him or her not to lie, but he or she has only learned that it's all right to hit. So, two boys were fighting and when one saw me he stopped in mid-punch and instead hugged the other boy. It made me laugh because it was so earnest, like he thought I really wouldn't know that they had been fighting, they had just been sharing a burly guy-hug.

Teaching science

I teach Natural Science and Health to Grade 7 learners. I have been teaching about ecosystems, nothing strange about that, I remember studying that at about the same age. Then we moved on to the "Health problems in Namibia's Ecosystems" and I found myself teaching the children how to avoid getting malaria, measles, and mumps and what to do to avoid dying of dehydration. These are NOT topics I learned about in seventh grade and even stranger, the kids were pretty knowledgeable. They had malaria prevention down pat and they knew how to make rehydration solution for a child sick with diarrhoea (something I first learned about my senior year at Wheaton in "Public Health and Nutrition in Developing Countries"). My "this is one of the most bizarre experiences of my life" moment came when I was teaching the kids how to prevent the plague (which apparently shows up in the north when there is drought.) The thing is that these are really important lessons. Kids who don't pass their exams and become goat farmers probably won't need to know how to make a food web, but it's important for them to know what malaria or measles looks like. Sometimes I feel like the kids know a lot more in science class than I do. They certainly taught me some things when we were talking about ecosystems- they know the plants and animals in detail, they just don't know their English names. I took them outside and had them list all of the plants and animals they saw and I let them use Damara if they didn't know the English name. Then I compiled the lists on the board. When they started naming things in Damara I did my best at spelling them and I literally got a round of applause (not something you expect in a seventh grade science class) for my mostly successful attempts. Ahh, KhoeKhoe, such a wonderful parlor trick.


It has been an especially active rainy season this year. Rain is a double edged sword here. On the one hand, rain means grass which means that the goats and cows have stopped looking so skeletal and there is plenty of milk to mix with porridge. That means that some of my kids start looking a little better fed, with less signs of minor malnutrition, definitely a positive. On the other hand, rain also means mosquitoes, which means that malaria, not particularly common in Namibia due to the fact that it's sandwiched between two deserts, sees a sudden upswing. One of the other volunteers said that there has been an outbreak in his village and my village is close enough to the north to be in danger. So far we've been lucky; most of the mosquitoes are closer to Kamanjab than Anker. Still, I saw a three year old spotted with mosquito bites and I worry. I was covered in mosquito bites too at her age, but malaria doesn't haunt the woods of Minnesota.

The beauty contest

I was asked to judge a beauty contest last weekend. It was a fundraiser for the school. The first round was Friday night and the second round was on Saturday night. By my estimations in the two nights, I think we made about US$75 for the school which will probably go towards the new used copier that they are trying to get. It was really odd. They've seen things like the Miss America pageant on TV (Just in case are wondering, the American television shows that show up on international TV stations seem to be all of the ones that would make you wince—Miss America, Jerry Springer, E! shows portraying people with way too much money and not enough common sense, and other shows that generally reinforce the idea that all Americans are ridiculously rich, loud, pugnacious, and vain) In the beauty contest there was some sketchy "swimwear" (like underwear and a bra) and I just kept thinking how this would NEVER fly in an American school. On Friday the culminating event of the night was when two out-of-school youth got into a drunken fight outside and broke at least two of the windows in the dining hall where we were having the contest. The little children terrified me by crowding closer to see the fight better. I stood up and started yelling at them all to sit down, which later amused some of the kids "You were scared, Miss Amy, weren't you?" They asked me "Yes, I was scared that the little children would get glass on them." I said with frustration and the kids laughed, as if this were really, really funny. On Saturday it was a little calmer (for one thing, we only had about half the attendance since many of the kids couldn't scrounge together another dollar (US 15 cents) for admission.) The only real disturbance was a very drunk man, inside the hall this time, deciding to try walking the aisle as a beauty contestant. Some angry words were exchanged in KhoeKhoe when he got up onto the tables that were serving as a catwalk, I don't really know what happened, but he got down after a while and I tried to avoid him. There was a very nice intermission when they turned on some KhoeKhoe pop music and an impromptu dance broke out. Oh, and some of the beauty contestants impressed me by dancing Kwashi Kwashi (a dance that involves squatting close to the ground and, without moving your feet, moving your knees together and apart) in high heels, which I didn't even know was possible (actually it is my firm belief that to really dance Kwashi Kwashi you have to not have bones in your lower extremities.) So that was the exciting beauty contest.

My "ordinary " life

I wrote a paragraph for this email about how my life is really pretty ordinary. Nothing really epic happens. I get up, eat breakfast, go to work. I still have too much to do. I still don't like to wash my dishes. It's all just real life. Then, I started thinking about it and I think I might just be getting to the point where it isn't novel anymore. "Oh," I think, "That donkey cart is driving too fast." Or "How am I going to earn the N$20 (US$3.25) for tape to fix the library books?" Or "I wish they wouldn't singe the hair off the goat head right outside my classroom window." I think that I've gotten used to all of the new and interesting things (kids singing in the next classroom, goats and donkeys carts, KhoeKhoe church choir practice next door) and all that's left are the annoying things and the frustration. Then I started thinking about that and I thought, "Oh no, that's an almost perfect definition of culture shock." So I think I am in the midst of a strong bout of culture shock (which is really a misnomer since it's not that shocking, sneaking up as it does, slowly in stocking feet. I think they should call it culture lethargy or culture depression with anti-social impulses but I guess those don't have the same ring to them.) Anyway, recognizing it is nice, but it doesn't do that much to combat it.

E-mails and packages

I have been reading all of the emails I have saved on my computer, which helps some, and I got a really wonderful package from one of my Wheaton profs (Thank you Professor Wright!) filled with familiar books, some CDs, and copies of the New Yorker and other magazines. It was supposed to get here much sooner, but I'm actually glad it didn't since it came at almost the perfect time, right when I really needed something familiar from home. It made me cry a little when I got it (which kind of freaked my 7th graders out since it was just after class and I think they are all a little worried after my week and a half absence that I'm going to leave them and go back to America.) I also got some CDs from my family with music, including my cousins singing like angels, and downloaded books, which were wonderful. I'm just trying to survive through the end of the term tests (this coming week.) Then we have reconnect- a two week meeting with all of the other volunteers for "training" (I don't think we'll be too cooperative if they are long bureaucratic sessions) but mainly so we can all get together for a bit and detox. From what I've heard no one has dropped out since we took our oaths (only 2 of the 50 dropped out before that) that puts us well ahead of the average drop out rates in Namibia of 20% by reconnect (they say it's because of the isolation- Namibia is the second least densely populated country in the world, the first being Mongolia), so I'm excited to see everyone.


Just in case you are all keeping track of my reading habits, and I know you all follow them with baited breath, I managed to find a copy of Volume 2 of The Covenant in the Peace Corps Library, so I've been reading that. I also read Master Harold and the Boys, The Crucible, and I'm in the middle of a book called The Christian Imagination and A Raisin in the Sun all of which were sent in that package. Plus I've been devouring the copies of the New Yorker at a pretty breathtaking speed and reading plenty of poetry. I especially like reading the film and book reviews which is pretty funny since I can't actually see any of them. In the absence of the ability to watch movies, reading their plots is a good substitute. When I go to reconnect I'm going to pack about half of my suitcase with books and magazines to pass along and to trade for other books I'm hoping that we'll set up a little lending library and switch all the books around. I've been joking that when I said I thought the Peace Corps would be an educational experience I didn't expect that it would be because I read more than I did in college.

Tree trimming

The other day I decided that I should cut back the large tree that was threatening to subsume my back door. So I took out my handy Swiss army knife (other than my laptop, one of the best things I brought) and opened the woodsaw (hah- to all of you who laughed at the woodsaw attachment, by the way, I also use the can opener all of the time) and I started hacking away at the vines which then started bleeding thick puddles of sticky, poisonous milk onto my back porch. Unfortunately I got splattered with some of the milk and it was stronger than I had been lead to believe. I ended up with sticky gum stuck to my arm hair and in three places where I didn't manage to get it off completely I ended up with small blisters. Fun fun fun.

Going to school routines

This is how my walk to school goes, one of the better parts of my day, at least when I'm not wishing I were back in bed. I leave my house at 6:20, before the sun is up. I don't usually go by the time. I usually look outside and guesstimate when I should leave by how much light is on the horizon. I've gotten pretty good at it. I should leave the house when most of the sky is black and full of stars, but the East is blue with a little tinge of yellow green. I walk out my front door, lock it and go out of the gate. 30 meters away, the acacia tree with the low branch that the kids sit on is black against the light. Just above it is Venus and sometimes there is a sliver of the crescent moon. I go through the gate to the hostel, past the children lined up in front of the huge cauldrons on the cookfire, waiting for a little breakfast-- tea or coffee and bread with jam. I walk in between the girls hostel where girls are bouncing on the beds or talking excitedly and the dining hall (empty and dark) and I exit the hostel gate on the other side. Now I can see the school, hopefully with a few lights on in the classrooms, since that means that someone has unlocked the gate, but not too many lights, since that means I'm late. I walk past a few first and second graders, already lining up at the school gate, and go into the school ground. I unlock the library and, if I have the time, I take a minute or two to read something in a magazine or just sit and wake up. Then I go to the teacher meeting, greet everyone, and my day starts in full swing.

I'm confusing

There is a little boy in my village. He couldn't be over two years old and I terrify him. If I come around a corner, even if I'm very far away, he screams bloody murder, cries and tries to run away. His brothers and sisters take particular delight in tormenting him by picking him up and walking towards me, which I think is a bit cruel. They told me that he's afraid because he thinks I'm a ghost. Between the people who think I'm an angel, the people who think I'm a ghost, the people who think I'm a Boer, and the people who think I'm a tourist, I think I manage to confuse just about everyone who comes across me.

Long meetings

This Friday we had a parent-teacher meeting that was almost torture. First of all, it was supposed to start at 10, but it actually started at 11:30 and it went for 3 hours, all in KhoeKhoe, including a section where every cent that was spent out of the school development fund (school fees) for the last year was ennumerated. By the time it ended at 2:30 I was ravenous with hunger and really sick of being at work (I told the kids I was napping and then went into my room and read the New Yorker. I actually do that a lot because I need way more alone time than the people here think is appropriate and I'd really rather they think I'm a little narcoleptic than angry or unhappy, also when I try to explain that I need time alone I'm met with blank stares). I did learn some things I never knew about the school, though. 206 of the 295 students live in the hostels and, apparently, due to an accute mattress shortage, at least two learners have to share each bed, sometimes three, which I suppose accounts for the current epidemic of head lice (at least that's what I assume is happening since girls show up to class shaved bald with wicked looking yellow stuff on their head.) One of the oumas (grandmas) was very upset and I asked Anjelica Christiaan about it and she said, "How do I say it? Her child share a bed with a boy who is watering the bed." She apparently was quite upset and wanted her child to have a different bed-mate, but mainly everyone just laughed. Also, there was a long, angry discussion about what should be done about the out of school youth who broke the windows in the beauty contest. The consensus seems to be that they should be arrested (easier said than done, since the nearest police station is in Kamanjab 50 K away) and people seemed to be quite concerned that the littler hostel children were having trouble sleeping because of it. I also found out that if you couldn't pay the school fees you are supposed to try to bring in, "any goat or sheep" to pay them. Then they had the longest school board nominations ever. Every nominee had to be nominated and have two people second the nomination, then he or she had to accept and give a short speech. Then, the names of the nominee, nominator, seconders, and the children of all of them had to be recorded and everyone had to sign their name (or, if they couldn't write, there was an ink pad for them to put their fingerprint.) This process was repeated for all 10 nominees.

Mail from home

But, on the bright side, when I got home I had loads and loads of mail. There was a package from my parents that was supposed to get here for Valentine's day (ah, the Namibian Postal Service- Motto- It'll get there when it gets there and you should be thankful that it got there at all.) There were letters from my friends in Okakarara and my friend Tiffany and there were videos of my friends and professors my parents took when they went to Wheaton. The videos made me cry a lot, but in a good way. I needed to cry. It's weird the things I miss. Sometimes I really miss how much easier and more comfortable life is in America; sitting on cushy chairs at Starbucks reading and drinking coffee, going to the grocery store and not having to worry about how to get things home or what I will or won't be able to get in Anker or Kamanjab or when I'll be able to get back, watching TV on the couch or surfing the Internet. Other times I just miss familiar places and people, seeing Arena Theatre in the movies made me a little homesick, tea at the Rupprechts, and of course all of the people (Baby George is so beautiful and big, Jewell.), sometimes I just find myself thinking about Wheaton College or my home in Minnesota. Then sometimes I just miss my own culture; walking down a street and being anonymous, talking at a regular pace and not having to consider whether "choose" is too big of a word and whether maybe they'd understand better if I said "pick", and I miss the sense that my house is a private space and my free time is private time. Anyway, that's part of the culture shock I suppose. I'm hoping it will get easier as I get used to things. I love you all a lot and I was so happy to see everyone. I'm going to send emails to all of the people who sent me greetings on the video, so check your inboxes.

So that's the way things are going here. I just didn't have the energy to organize this week's email into a coherent whole or even to provide reasonable transitions, but I know that you will probably enjoy the snippets anyway. I'm doing OK. Hope you all are too. I'll try to write again soon. Much love. Take care of yourselves and each other. !Gaise ha re (Stay well)

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